"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

La Dolce Vita vs Making A Difference–The Choice Is Obvious

There is a scene in Woody Allen’s Match Point where the con man tells his prospective prey that he doesn’t want to teach tennis all his life. He wants “to make a difference”. Of course this is all nonsense.  All he wants is to marry the daughter of one of Britain’s wealthiest families and be set for life.

Match Point


Making a difference has gained currency since the social revolution of the Sixties. Individuals, especially when united with others, can effect social change; and to do otherwise, say committed progressives, would be to fail one’s moral imperative.

Before the Sixties making money was the American way and justifiably respected. Even though Sinclair Lewis satirized the bourgeoisie of the Minnesota plains, he respected their enterprise, optimism, and hard work. Highfalutin ideas and turning the prairie into money were inconsistent as Carrie, the heroine of Main Street, finds out the hard way.  In the end, however, she comes to accept the goodness and principled life of the good people of the town, and puts her reverence for books, art, and theatre on the shelf.

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The post-War boom of the 40s and 50s was remarkable; and Puritanical conviction, the international demand for American products and services, and the wide-open economic climate of the times enabled rapid growth.  Most small communities like those of Main Street were conservative, inward-looking, proud of their heritage and traditions, hard-working, and optimistic; and saw no need to look outward as the contributed their bit to American enterprise. .

The Sixties changed all that.  We are all brothers, the Movement preached, and together we can erase a centuries of racial injustice, economic inequality, adventurism, and war; and become the world’s first truly participatory, populist, liberal democracy.

All of this – small town boosterism and international progressivism alike – required hard work, commitment, rectitude, a belief in the possibility of progress, and a belief in American exceptionalism.  Promoting American ingenuity or moral commitment both require dedication, discipline, and energy. 

European intellectuals have always sniffed at American exceptionalism.  There really is no such thing as progress, they have always claimed, and point to Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and fifteen hundred years of incessant continental conflict and war for proof.

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The English upper class have always sniffed at American enthusiasm and bravado. The world is a far more subtle, nuanced place than these prairie rubes imagine, they say, and better to act when necessary than to bleat on about hope, progress and salvation.

No matter how much members of French literary salons may pillory the United States, just about everybody wants to come here.  If America were contiguous to Europe, hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern and African migrants would be climbing the fence. These peasants have always worked hard for a living and their families, so why not work hard for greater rewards?

There are always two sides to every argument, and those who propose living the good life – la dolce vita – have a point. The Puritans had it all wrong, say the Italians. Life is far too short to be spent on severe, nose-to-the-grindstone, unremitting work. Social progress? Folly. Celestial rewards for those who toil in the vineyard? Nonsense.  A life of probity, abiding by the law, saving, and modesty? Absurd.

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Of course the Italian court was a model of aristocratic principle and means.  In Florence no less than Paris or London, the aristocracy followed the same rules of kingship, political rule, and lineage. Florence led the world in industry and banking in the early Renaissance, and Italy was never an economic slouch.  In recent years its antiquated system has begun to wobble and teeter under EU pressure; but has begun to reform, produce, and modernize.

Yet Italians have not lost the dolce vita spirit. American Puritanical enterprise can be influential up to a point.  Outside the boardrooms of Turin and Genoa, it has made only a dent – a ding on the elegant, graceful, and supremely beautiful Ferrari. La dolce vita or French joie de vivre are still as culturally defining as they always have been. No American would ever take a month of uninterrupted summer holiday like the French still do, cramming the TGV to Lyon and the Riviera every year on August 1st, enjoying the Mediterranean until la rentrée. Long lunches, siestas, trysts, cinq à septs may be under siege, but they are holding their own.

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“The United States is so bloody serious”, said an Italian friend of mine. Nothing is taken lightly, he said.  Everything is turned into an issue, a cause, or a purpose.

A few years ago I was in Rome to meet colleagues at FAO before heading out to Africa. On my way to the 10th floor conference room, every time an attractive woman stepped into the elevator, she was greeted with smiles and appreciative nods. There was nothing aggressive or untoward; nothing unpleasant or embarrassing. The men acknowledged the woman’s beauty, and she appreciated the attention. 

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On returning to the United States, I was taking the elevator to a meeting in the State Department when a beautiful woman got on at the third floor.  Immediately all men raised their eyes to the ceiling to avoid any possible intimation of sexual aggressiveness or unwanted attention.  The intimidated men turned away.  The woman did not exist.

It is easy to say that this sexual ignorance is only a result of the current progressive focus on diversity and social equality; and that this evangelism has forced otherwise open and tolerant people into hiding.  Yet as Sinclair Lewis pointed out, it is in the American character to be evangelical, to insist on social and cultural homogeneity, to follow the rules, and to stifle any anti-communitarian impulses. The careful, emotionally parsimonious but exuberant American is for real.

An Italian American family I knew in New Brighton had retained much of la dolce vita of the Old Country.  Dr. Lavaca was a model of bella figura.  He spent hundreds on handmade Italian suits, imported shoes from Venice, silk ties, and a weekly hair-styling. He looked great, spiffy, elegant, and cut a fine figure walking down the corridors of New Brighton General Hospital.  He worked attentively if not overly hard, limited his practice to what he alone could manage, refused the pressures of the new medical groups that were becoming more and more common, and enjoyed golf, winter vacations, the best restaurants of the area, and more than one girlfriend. 

Work, he knew, was always an item to be factored in, but limited to place and time.  He, for example, worked extremely hard in college and medical school, knowing that his degrees and honors would be tickets a life of wealth, success, and leisure.  Once certified, and operating his practice out of a spacious, well-appointed office on West Main Street, he relaxed. Because of his easy, laissez-faire attitude, he was known for his bedside manner; and as a physician he could refer complicated cases to specialists, thus eliminating risk to himself and his patients.  Even in a small city like New Brighton, he prospered both economically and socially.  His was a good life, enjoyed to the fullest because he had figured out how to accommodate both American Puritanical enterprise and la dolce vita.

Why would anyone limit their life to purpose, when there is good evidence for a purposeless, random, and meaningless one? Why would anyone invest in social progress when thousands of years of history have demonstrated that it simply does not happen? Why would anyone flagellate themselves for not doing more for others when as Christians believe, the only contract worth considering is that between the individual and Jesus Christ? And faith in him, said Martin Luther, was the only currency abroad.  Good works don’t count.

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In other words, there is every reason to aspire to la dolce vita. ‘Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die’ has always been the most sensible adage.

Not everyone is like Henry Lavaca, and each person’s definition of the good life is different.  Some tend more to artistic pleasures – art, music, and dance; others prefer literature, philosophy, and history; and many more like to kick back with brats and beer.  The point is not what one considers to be elements of la dolce vita; but how to enjoy it.

The case of Axel Notting is a good one. A number of years ago Axel joined an international relief organization which distributed food in countries of the developing world. Axel had no ‘service motive’ whatsoever, and signed up because he wanted to see the world. The New Brighton Herald ran an article on him.  The headline read “Local Man Does Good” and described the work he was to do in the poorest areas of India.

Throughout his long career, Axel led the good life. He was dutiful to his work, but it was a means to an end. It was not difficult, and he had plenty of free time to himself. He stayed at the best hotels, ate at the finest restaurants, spent long weekends at beach resorts, and had Angolan, Palestinian, and Danish lovers.

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Thanks to his excellent French and Portuguese, he was able to meet and socialize with intellectuals, artists, imams, and political activists. His eleemosynary mission was the enabler for his brand of good life.  If the people of the Congo, Bolivia, or Chad benefitted from his work, so much the better. Alleviation of their problems was a by-product of his work.  Enjoying life was its principal attainment.

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            The Oberoi Grand, Kolkata

Alex and Henry Lavaca were two of a kind. Neither believed that purpose or mission was important.  Results were all that mattered; and both discharged their duties responsibly and well.  Most importantly, they enjoyed life. Una cena senza vino e como una giornata senza sole, goes the Italian proverb; and both Henry and Alex never let a day go by without a glass of wine.

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